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Everyone recognises the little mouse with his circular ears, wearing red shorts and yellow shoes. Mickey Mouse is Disney’s most prized possession. And Disney has done everything in its power to retain that possession. Last year was Mickey’s 89th birthday. Since Mickey made his debut on ‘Steamboat Willie’, the copyright term has been extended twice to accommodate Disney’s beloved mouse.

Mickey Mouse and the Evolution of Copyright

Mickey Mouse was born in 1928, under the Copyright Act of 1909. In accordance with the US law at the time, the copyright of Mickey Mouse should have expired after 56 years, and become part of the public domain in 1984.

As Mickey was increasing Disney’s revenue into billions, and the copyright expiration was nearing, Disney starting lobbying to extend its mouse’s protection. As a result, in 1976, the US Congress extended the copyright term to the life of the author plus 50 years after the author’s death, or 75 years for corporate copyrights. Mickey was safe for another 19 years until 2003.

But, once again, as the mouse kept making money, Disney kept lobbying to extend the copyright term. In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) was enacted to extend copyright to the life of the author, plus 70 years, and for corporates the earlier of, 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation. The CTEA, referred to by critics as the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’, gave Disney yet another 20 years, meaning that Mickey Mouse should enter the public domain in 2023.

The Public Domain

When the copyright in a work has expired, it enters into what we call the ‘public domain’. This means that anyone can use the work without paying for it or obtaining permission from the copyright owner.

The protection offered by intellectual property rights aims to encourage creative and innovative works. Many new creative works are built on existing work from the public domain. Even Disney based many of its films on works that had reached their copyright expiration date.

Disney Movies Based on Public Domain Works
Aladdin (1992) A folktale in A Thousand and One Nights (1706)
Alice in Wonderland (1951 and 2010) Lewis Carroll’s books (1865)
Around the World in 80 Days (2004) Jules Verne’s book (1873)
Beauty and the Beast (1991) G-S Barbot de Villeneuve’s book (1775)
Cinderella (1950) Charles Perrault’s folktale, Grimm’s Fairy Tails (1697)
Christmas Carol (2009) Charles Dickens (1843)
Frozen (2013) Hans Christian Anderson’s Ice Queen (1845)
The Little Mermaid (1989) Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid (1837)


Mickey’s Monopoly Fueling Debate

The issue with granting, what seems like, a never-ending extension of copyright to protect Mickey and his fellow friends, is the effect that it has on the battle between preserving the rights of copyright owners and the public interest in accessing copyright materials.

For copyright owners: The argument for retaining copyright is that the owner will earn a substantial amount, through their exclusive rights, incentivising the creation of new works.

For public interest: The argument for the public is that by preventing works to enter into the public domain, other people cannot create derivative material of the original version, stifling their creativity.

Key Takeaways

Walt Disney died in 1966 but lives on through his mouse. Disney now has until 2023 to extend the life of the seemingly immortal, Mickey Mouse. As funny as it is that the law can be influenced by a mouse, it seems as though we may never be able to take the ‘Mickey’ out of copyright.

If you need answers to your copyright questions, call LegalVision’s IP lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.


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